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Bach (JS): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

Christoph Prégardien, tenor (Evangelist); Max van Egmond, bass (Jesus); Christian Fliegner, Maximilian Kiener, soprano; René Jacobs, David Cordier, alto; Markus Schäfer, John Elwes, tenor; Klaus Mertens, Peter Lika, bass
Tölzer Knabenchor; Men's Choir of La Petite Bande; La Petite Bande (leader: Sigiswald Kuijken)
Dir: Gustav Leonhardt
rec: March 1-8, 1989, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
deutsche harmonia mundi - RD 77848 (3 CDs; 74'40"/51'10"/46'32")

The St Matthew Passion is certainly one of the best known and most beloved works by the great Johann Sebastian Bach. No wonder that there are many recordings, in all sorts of performances. This is one of the few, in which all vocal parts are sung by male voices. In fact, the cast brought together here probably comes closer to what Bach intended than any other. This piece has been written for two choirs and two instrumental ensembles. Since in Bach's time the solo parts were sung by members of the choir, he certainly used different singers in both choirs. That practice is followed here: where most recordings have six soloists (four for the arias, two in the roles of Evangelist and Jesus), this one has no less than 10. Here the soprano parts are sung by boys, as was common practice in Bach's days. The orchestra is using period instruments.

The approach of Gustav Leonhardt is of a rather intimate and introverted character. That doesn't mean that it lacks drama and passion. On the contrary, one of the striking features is the strong emotional impact which Leonhardt creates by stressing the importance of the text and putting it into the centre of attention. This concept is almost perfectly realised by the cast. Christoph Prégardien and Max van Egmond are ideally suited for the parts they have to sing. Of the other soloists, only David Cordier and Peter Lika are slightly disappointing - Cordier is a little too pale, Lika a little too 'operatic'. René Jacobs and Klaus Mertens are especially impressive. Jacobs' interpretations of arias like "Buss und Reu" and "Erbarme dich" are heartbreaking. The soprano parts are sung by two singers from the choir. The soprano parts have a common character: they are all about love and dedication. That character matches the boy's voice perfectly. Maximilian Kiener and in particular Christian Fliegner sing those parts very well. They bring something like purity and innocence into the performance no adult soprano can deliver. It makes the recitative "Er hat uns allen wohlgetan" and the following aria "Aus Liebe" very touching.

The fact that the Tölzer Knabenchor is German helps in bringing across the choruses and chorales. The pronunciation is faultless. The choir has also a very long experience in singing German baroque music and has worked many times with Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in particular in the recording of Bach's cantatas. It is able to execute Leonhardt's ideas about phrasing and articulation perfectly. There are very few recordings in which it is so easy to understand the text of the chorales. Every word is getting a different treatment, which gives them a very strong emotional impact. The choruses are also done very well. Some of the so-called 'turbae' are highly dramatic. The famous chorus "Sind Blitze, sind Donner" starts in an almost subdued way, but gets more and more powerful, until it ends in a thundering climax.

In this recording we hear some of the best instrumental playing one can imagine, from such highly skilled performers as Sigiswald, Barthold and Wieland Kuijken, Paul Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele. Choir and orchestra blend excellently and bring this piece to and end with the moving closing chorus "Wir setzen uns in Tränen nieder".

In my view this recording is perhaps the best of its kind and a 'must have' for anyone who loves the music of Bach in general and the sound and skills of boys' voices in particular.

Johan van Veen (© 1999)

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